This wasn’t exactly the way North Carolina coach Roy Williams drew it up – his team missing a bunch of shots early, the Tar Heels slow to score on the interior, Isaiah Hicks in foul trouble, Theo Pinson shooting (and making) 3-pointers … but Williams said recently the Tar Heels had to find comfort winning in a variety of ways, and so this, too, was something new.
The Tar Heels in the second half at the Smith Center pulled away for a 74-63 victory against Louisville on Wednesday night, and UNC did it with Hicks in foul trouble and with Kennedy Meeks, its other starting big man, fumbling away passes. The Tar Heels did it with Pinson, not known for his perimeter shooting, making his second 3-pointer of the night.
And they did it with Justin Jackson, the junior forward, playing a prominent role, as usual. Jackson, one of four Tar Heels who scored in double figures, led UNC with 21 points, and at least his contributions went according to plan. Jackson’s 3-pointer with a little less than five minutes remaining gave the Tar Heels a 64-49 lead, and it prompted Louisville coach Rick Pitino to call a timeout.
By then, though, the No. 8 Tar Heels (24-5, 12-3 ACC), who began the game mired in a miserable shooting funk, appeared firmly in control. The Cardinals in the final few minutes never trailed by fewer than eight points, and UNC celebrated its second consecutive victory in which its defense was as integral a component to its success as its offense.
UNC during its 65-41 victory against Virginia on Saturday held the Cavaliers to 27.8 percent shooting from the field. The numbers weren’t that impressive against Louisville (22-6, 10-5), but the Cardinals, whose struggles on the road continued, went through shooting woes of their own and shot 43.3 percent overall.
One of the loudest moments in the Smith Center came early in the game, when the score of Syracuse’s victory against Duke appeared on the video boards high in the corners of the arena. UNC fans looked up, saw the news of the Orange’s 78-75 victory, and collectively released a loud, long roar.
Syracuse’s victory had practical implications for UNC, too, aside from the pleasure it brought its supporters. The Orange’s win meant that the Tar Heels, with a victory of their own, could take a full two-game lead atop the ACC standings.
And so now, with three games left to play, the Tar Heels lead Louisville, Duke, Florida State and Notre Dame by two games in the conference standings. Those four teams all are tied for second place, with a 10-5 conference record, and only three of them will receive double-byes in the upcoming ACC tournament.
UNC led 33-30 at halftime, despite missing 15 of its first 18 shots from the field. The Tar Heels led by seven, twice, early in the second half – the last of those times with 17 ½ minutes remaining. At the time the Tar Heels had momentum and the crowd was into it, and it appeared, briefly, as though UNC might seize the kind of control that’s difficult to wrestle away.
But then all of that was gone in an instant – or in about 90 seconds. That’s how long Louisville needed to erase that seven-point difference and tie the game, which it did on Donovan Mitchell’s 3-pointer with about 16 minutes remaining.
Gradually UNC extended its lead again, and it led 51-43 with 11 ½ minutes remaining after Pinson’s second 3-pointer. It was the first time since Dec. 30, 2015, that Pinson, who finished with 11 points, had made multiple 3-pointers in a game.
With the Tar Heels failing to assert themselves on the interior the way they prefer – they finished with only 26 points in the paint – their perimeter shooting turned out to be instrumental in the victory. UNC, which led by as many 17 points with less than four minutes remaining, made seven 3s, with Jackson accounting for four of those.
In the final seconds the Tar Heels simply dribbled out the clock. They received a standing ovation while they did, and walked off the Smith Center court firmly in control of the race for the ACC’s regular season championship.